At the beginning of the 20th century, when 12-string guitars first appeared in the United States, the instruments were considered novelty items, curiosities, freaks of guitar making that were beneath the dignity of serious companies like Martin and Gibson. But when Blind Willie McTell picked up a Stella 12-string in 1927, and then basically never put it down, the instrument was suddenly legitimized.

A folk singer named Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, had actually made the Stella 12-string his own earlier, in 1912, but Lead Belly had so many scrapes with the law and spent so much time in prison that he wouldn’t get a chance to popularize the ringing tones of the 12-string until the 1930s and ’40s. Even then, his biggest hit, “Good Night Irene,” came after his death in 1949.

Pete Seeger and the Weavers kept the 12-string sound alive until the 1960s, when groups like the Rooftop Singers (“Walk Right In”) made it the go-to instrument on the commercial folk scene. Gibson was ready with its B-45 in 1961 and its B-25 in 1962, while Martin got on board a bit later with its D12-20 in 1964 and D12-35 in 1965.

The loudest noise in 12-strings, though, was made by Rickenbacker, thanks to a custom, one-of-a-kind 12-string version of its 325 hollowbody electric guitar made in 1964 for John Lennon of the Beatles. George Harrison also became a Rickenbacker acolyte, playing his Rickenbacker 360 12-string on songs like "A Hard Day’s Night."

One musician who liked that sound a lot was Roger McGuinn of the Byrds. Reportedly, he bought a 360-12 after seeing the movie named after of the famous Beatles song. He went on to play a 12-string on one of the Byrds’ biggest hits, “Turn Turn Turn.”

By the late 1970s, newer companies like Taylor made acoustic 12-strings part of their lines. Once again, a key musician would cement the instrument's sound in our collective soundtrack. In this case it was Neil Young who, while vacationing in Florida, purchased a Taylor 12-string, an 855, at a local music shop. Young liked his 855 so much he ordered a second, and Taylor subsequently gained widespread recognition when Young’s 855 figured prominently in his concert film, "Rust Never Sleeps."


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Recent News: 12 String Guitars

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James Blackshaw: Best Hand Forward
Premier Guitar, May 25th

By the time he released his second album, 2004's Celeste, Blackshaw had picked up the 12-string guitar and begun to explore gradually unfurling, longer-form pieces with suggestions of raga and British liturgical music, a direction he'd follow on Lost...Read more

'21 Guns' salutes fallen Lake County servicemen
Lake County News, May 25th

He was joined on the song by other musicians who will be familiar to Lake County residents, including Pat Ickes on pedal steel guitar, Dan Prather on 12-string guitar, Don Hoberg on bass guitar and Don Prather on drums. Dan and Don Prather also did ...Read more

Dinner and a musical: Country singer Brent Payne wants to dish up food and ...
Daily Pilot, May 22nd

The song over, Payne — clad in a black hat and paisley shirt, blue jeans and leather shoes — bends over the boy and holds out the 12-string guitar he's played since 2000. The toddler gives a tentative strum, and Payne whoops with approval. "That's...Read more

StuART Spasm formed a new band for AmRep movie party, schedules more shows
Brooklyn Vegan (blog), May 22nd

Next I recruited Ryan Skelleton Boy, who just as LeadBelly was the King of the 12 string guitar, is himself the King of the two String Bass. Then came guitarist Andrea Sicco of Twin Guns, not only does this free me up when I'm singing, but when our...Read more

Guitarist Walker intense, innovative
Albany Times Union, May 18th

By the time he wrapped up his performance with the churning, raga-like "Summer Dress" on 12-string guitar, the intensity level had risen to almost alarming levels. His strumming was bold and aggressive. His fingers flew up and down the fretboard...Read more

12-String Corner
Acoustic Guitar Magazine, May 9th

Why is it, that when 12-string guitar is mentioned, most people associate the instrument with Lead Belly? To me, there are far more players who have more skill and vocal range than Lead Belly. I think that the key to his iconic status lies not in his...Read more

Lead Belly tribute brings stars, crowd, country music roots
Washington Times, April 27th

The true genius is that Lead Belly's mix of storytelling and musical prowess, including on the 12-string guitar, can change shape easily into blues, country, rock, pop, folk and skiffle, which is a mix of jazz, blues, folk and roots especially popular...Read more

12-String Setup Secrets
Premier Guitar, February 9th

A handful of musicians have built their careers around the 12-string guitar—Lead Belly, Leo Kottke, and Roger McGuinn come to mind—but for most guitarists, an electric or acoustic 12-string is a specialty instrument to be hauled out when a song needs...Read more